FOR 16 YEARS, Helmut Kohl was the free world's most durable and successful statesman. He will be remembered for immense achievements when his celebrated contemporaries -- and his electoral defeat on Sunday -- are forgotten.
This is the man who unified Germany with sheer stubbornness and tore down The Wall, as communism collapsed in the East. He persuaded Russians to accept unification and Germans to pay for it. He propelled Europe toward deeper unity -- a monetary union, based on an unbreakable partnership of Germany and France.
Democratic electorates, however, do not vote gratitude. Germans had no difficulty chucking Chancellor Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union and Free Democratic coalition partners. Four terms were enough.
The coalition's traditional late campaign surge came up short in Sunday's election. A stagnant economy, high unemployment and continued poverty of former East Germany influenced younger German voters more than Mr. Kohl's solidity and world prestige.
Gerhard Schroeder, the equivalent of a U.S. state governor, comes to power pledged to provide jobs, especially in East Germany. Germany is turning to an untested leader when its own leadership was never more important.
The world's third-largest economy will join 10 European countries under a single central bank on Jan. 1 to launch a common currency. With the new year, the provincial politician will take his turn as president of the European Union and of the Group of Eight industrialized countries.
Mr. Schroeder is among the younger generation of centrists leading the left. But while he has dumped the socialist baggage, he does not lead alone.
Oskar Lafontaine, a traditional leftist and party kingpin, will be finance minister. The trendy Green Party's 47 seats must be added to the Social Democrats' 298 for a workable parliamentary majority, with Joschka Fischer, the Green's leader, as foreign minister. A one-time pacifist and militant foe of nuclear power, he is a recent convert to centrism.
However this works, Mr. Kohl's giant contributions will remain.
Pub Date 9/29/98